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The Manimal

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As is the case every time Team USA is forced to make cuts to get their roster down to a specific number for an international competition, some very good players were left at home this summer when the National Team departed for the 2014 Basketball World Cup. A tragic injury ended Paul George’s summer and Kevin Durant withdrew from the team to focus on his new contract negotiations, but even with those two big names involuntarily out of the selection pool, USA Basketball Chairmain Jerry Colangelo still had to leave Damian Lillard, Chandler Parsons, John Wall, Bradley Beal and Gordon Hayward, among others, off his final roster.

Even though Team USA is loaded at point guard with Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and Stephen Curry representing the United States in Spain, it will still surprising to see both Wall and Lillard left off the final roster, and either Parsons or Hayward seemed to be a lock to make the team to provide a hybrid forward option. Instead, Colangelo prioritized big men and brought Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Cousins, Mason Plumlee and Kenneth Faried with him to accompany superstar Anthony Davis.

Without a doubt, Plumlee is the most surprising member of the squad, given that he just completed his first season in the NBA and has very little on his resume other than some solid defensive chops and a strong recommendation from Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski. Of course, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski is also USA Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski, so that recommendation goes a long way.

Past Plumlee, though, Kenneth Faried is the selection least likely to catch on with common NBA fans. After all, ever since the Dream Team, Team USA rarely throws out a line-up without a superstar at every position, and Faried’s inclusion on the roster as well, as his spot in the starting line-up, doesn’t quite move the needle in the way that we’re used to with this team. But that doesn’t mean it was the wrong move. On a team full of stars, most of whom operate as the first or second options with their domestic clubs, having someone like Faried that lives to do the dirty work creates a balance between talent and grit that is necessary on a team that will always garner the opposition’s best effort.

It goes without saying that Faried was far from a lock to make the team when he came into camp. Outside of those that had previously suited up for Team USA in a major international competition, everyone that was in Las Vegas when training camp tipped off was fighting for a spot. And though he may not stand out above his NBA peers when doing an evaluation based on pure talent, when you are looking to construct what will end up being a super team no matter how you slice it and your selection process includes intersquad scrimmages, you’re giving a great shot to a player like Faried to force himself onto the roster.

Faried thrives in a training camp environment. Not only because it offers him an outlet for his pent up energy on a daily basis, but also because his ceaseless activity makes every practice feel like a playoff game. If anybody on the floor is just going through the motions, Faried is going to show them up, and with every loose ball that he chased down and with every rebound he grabbed during camp, he moved himself up the depth chart and above the names that ended up being crossed out.

Just a couple of days into the Vegas training camp, Colangelo was asked about what kind of players he was looking to fill out his roster with, and he went out of his way to praise Faried and the attitude he brought to the floor.

“We’re going to end up with some specialists,” Colangelo said. “Now, I’ll just use a name. He may or may not be that guy, but Faried … Energy, rebounding. We looked at tapes of yesterday’s scrimmage. He came in and, within a minute, he was responsible for six points for his team, getting two offensive rebounds, getting out on the break.”

Faried did up being that guy, or at least one of them since Kevin Durant’s unexpected withdrawal opened up another roster spot in the late stages of camp. Faried impressed the coaching staff by never taking a play off and by making sure that he was always working harder than everyone else on the court. And you can bet that he was keeping track of who was letting their guard down.

“It helps me to see how certain guys work everyday and how they get after it,” Faried said about being around his NBA peers. “I just want to see the way these guys approach the game. To see if they approach the game the way I do or if they are lackadaisical.”

Faried creates his own edge in this way. He feeds on the lethargy of his opponents and feasts on the unsuspecting. Routine and uncontested rebounds become backyard brawls with Faried around; his ample athleticism and uncanny desire will put him in places nobody expects him to be, his always revved motor empowering him to maximize his athletic talents. He earns everything that is given to him, and that includes his spot in this team. As he puts it, if he was working harder than guys in camp, then they really didn’t want a spot on the team.

“Because when you are not working as hard when you are in the position you are,” Faried says, “that means you don’t really want that position.”

Faried is far from a perfect player. He has flaws that are often exposed in the NBA realm. He lacks range offensively, he’s frequently out of place defensively  and he’s not much more than a finisher on the offensive end. He has limitations that saddle him in the “role player” category, although he’s a productive one. The thing is, Team USA doesn’t necessarily need perfect players up and down their roster, not when you have three of the best point guards in the world, a budding Hall-of-Famer in Anthony Davis, and potent scorers like Klay Thompson and James Harden. Those guys are going to carry the scoring burden, which means there is definitely a need for someone like Faried to supplement them with his energy, rebounding and improving off-ball movement on offense.

Through two games in Spain, Faried is averaging 13 rebounds per 40 minutes, one of the top marks in the tournament, and he was Team USA’s best player in their unexpectedly competitive game against Turkey, putting up 22 points on 11-of-14 shooting while pulling down eight rebounds (three offensive), nabbing three steals and blocking two shots. It’s already abundantly clear that Faried is a crucial player for this team and he’ll be entrusted with the task of guarding one of the Gasol brothers if Team USA winds up facing Spain in the gold medal game.

And though winning gold has become somewhat of a formality for Team USA, there’s no denying that an experience like this can have a profound impact on young players like Faried, and he knows that better than anybody.

“This is going to boost everything about me,” Faried said. “My intelligence, my basketball IQ, my leadership, my feel for the game. Even my passion for the game.”

“People say I’m passionate enough,” Faried continued. “But this is going to make me even more hungry.”

A man with Faried’s drive and energy saying that he’s still got an appetite for intensity? No wonder they call him the Manimal.

A Promise Delivered

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NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Miami Heat

Like a lot of folks, once I heard the rumors that LeBron James was going to announce his free agency decision on his website, I spent a lot of time refreshing LeBronJames.com just so that I could say that I saw the news first. Several times I questioned what I was doing, but I always figured that it wasn’t much worse than refreshing my Twitter feed incessantly.

Of course, it wasn’t necessary. LeBron ended up letting the world know he was returning to Cleveland with a tearjerker of an essay published with the help of Sports Illustrated, and the people that went as far as to strip code from his website for any clues on his decision ended up being disappointed. I still enjoyed the anticipation of a surprise, though, and I became particularly interested in something that was prominently displayed on the site: LeBron’s I PROMISE bands.

The more and more I looked at them and after I read about their purpose, I began to think about LeBron and the premise of promises and I started to believe that coming home was his plan all along. I started to think that LeBron made a promise to himself the day that he left Cleveland – or, perhaps, once he fully realized the impact his departure had – that he would come back to the city and redeem himself for ripping out its collective heart and stomping on it back in 2010.

LeBron had to leave Cleveland back then. I think even Cavaliers fans would admit that now. James had proven himself as one of the greatest athletes and talents the game had ever seen during his seven years in Cleveland, but the team simply couldn’t provide him with the supporting cast that he needed to vault himself into the legendary company that he sits in today.

Nobody can describe what his time with the Heat meant to LeBron more better can than he did. He said going off to Miami for four years was to him as college is to regular kids, which, of course, LeBron never had a chance to experience as the most hyped high school athlete of all-time. It’s such a symmetrical and spot on analogy.

LeBron choosing the Heat was literally the first time he was ever able to get away from home, and with the move came the ability to decompress and evolve without the pressure that comes along with momma’s cooking. I think most people would agree that the pressure to succeed in school and to bring home A’s was infinitely higher in high school than it was in college because our parents were always on top of us. But even if our GPAs were lower in college, I wouldn’t doubt that’s where we learned more, because the focus wasn’t on books or standardized tests, the focus was on finding ourselves.

And that’s what LeBron did in Miami. He’s matured so much since he went down there. The turning point for James was after those 2011 Finals, when he finally collapsed under the immense and unprecedented pressure that was weighing down on his broad shoulders. Right after the decisive game of that series, he used the NBA’s press pedestal to proclaim his superiority over the blue collar folks, or the kind of people that define the city of Cleveland.

But then he went into hibernation for the summer. He stayed away from everybody and even off the court for a while. Then he got to work on his game and he emerged the following season as a humbled man and a more complete basketball beast. He steamrolled through the Thunder in the Finals, smashing the only player in the league left standing as a peer, and rode a Ray Allen miracle shot to a second title before the dominant, legendary and respectable Spurs got revenge this season.

And now he’s back. He had to leave because he needed to win – and he did. Now he’s returned with a chance to bring a title back to the city of Cleveland, something that would make far more than a legendary basketball player. To win a championship in the most downtrodden sports city in America, just a half-hour away from where he grew up, would make him one of the most iconic sports figures of all-time. Whatever is a step beyond giving someone a key to the city, that’s what LeBron is going to get. They may elect him mayor of the city off write-in votes alone.

LeBron has known this all along. He would have stayed in Cleveland and had four more cracks at delivering a championship to the city over the past few years if he could have, but as one of the smartest men in sports, LeBron was all too aware that the Cavs weren’t equipped for a championship, and he knew that he couldn’t risk four prime seasons betting on the Cavs getting him better second and third options than Mo Williams and over the hill Antawn Jamison.

He couldn’t have handled the way he left better, for sure, but if his return didn’t atone for that TV special in and of itself, the essay he wrote about what the city means to him should end all of the bad blood. My mom starting choking up after reading the first few lines of that letter; my mom is a die hard San Antonio Spurs fan from Corpus Christi, Texas. I asked her why it made her cry. “It’s just the things he says,” she replied, not quite sure how to put it into words.

But that’s exactly what LeBron did in that letter. He succinctly summarized everything he has been thinking for the past four years without holding anything back. The way he speaks about the area, saying that “our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time” in regards to winning it all, how he says that he wants to raise his kids in the same place that he was raised, there’s an obvious bond there that was never truly broken no matter how much The Decision hurt both sides.

For all of the questions about LeBron’s loyalty from four years ago, this move proves that he’s always held a special place in his heart for the Cavaliers, not only because he had to get past that hurtful attack by Dan Gilbert, but because he’s passed up greener pastures for rolling hills of Ohio. Without a doubt, Cleveland gives LeBron a great shot at winning championships (mostly because they have LeBron), probably at better odds than the Heat would have. But there were other situations out there that made more sense if his sole purpose was to rack up as many rings as possible to aid his chase the ghost of Michael Jordan. Instead, he’s prioritized getting just one more in the city of Cleveland, showing a touch of humanity that Jordan could never uncover.

That’s why I think LeBron had promised himself this day would come, the day that he returned home for a chance to earn the crown that he was bestowed upon him back when he was a lanky teenager at St. Vincent–St. Mary. Read here for the latest reviews. I think he promised himself that he would return for redemption and forgiveness. I think he promised himself that he would give the final leg of his prime and the fleeting years of his career back to the city that made him who he is. I think he promised himself that he would set an example for his kids about values, maturity and the importance of home while raising them in his backyard.

I think he promised himself that he would make Cleveland proud to call him their own again.

Tiki-Taka

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USATSI/Steve Mitchell

MIAMI – The World Cup started on Thursday afternoon, which meant it was time for my personal tradition of cramming as much soccer-related information as possible into my brain so that I have at least some understanding of what I am watching throughout the tournament. Of all of my research, what interested me the most was reading about Spain and how their national team was inseparable from a certain style of play.

I had never heard the phrase “tiki-taka” before reading about the Spanish national team. At first I thought it was a unifying rallying cry like “Ubuntu” was for Doc Rivers’ Boston Celtics. Instead, tiki-taka represents Spain’s unique style of play, which is defined by constant, whip-smart passing, perpetual movement off the ball and a benevolent group of players.

Now, tell me if that doesn’t sound just a little bit like a certain basketball team from San Antonio that just eviscerated the two-time defending NBA champions on the road in back-to-back games to secure a 3-1 edge in the 2014 NBA Finals.

Of course, the Spurs have their own saying that symbolizes the fabric of their organization: Pounding the rock.

Gregg Popovich’s favorite mantra is a reference to an old quote by Jacob Riis about a stonecutter’s dedication to his craft in lieu of results and how his ultimate success comes not because of his last strike of the rock, but because all of the ones before it. In short, the quote, which hangs on the wall in the Spurs lockerroom, sums up Popovich’s “process over results” philosophy.

And throughout these NBA Finals, the Spurs have never wavered from their process, which heavily entails that tiki-taka style of succeeding collectively on every possession, and it’s put them in a position to claim their fifth banner in Game 5 on Sunday night.

San Antonio’s steadfast unity has never been more clear than in Games 3 and 4, where the Spurs used an unprecedented combination of unselfishness, smarts and individual creativity to dismantle what has been the most vaunted post-season defense in the league over the past few years. The Spurs had a historic shooting performance in Game 3, but their dominance was sustainable because it was rooted in their fundamental style of play, and yet another brilliant group effort allowed San Antonio to flourish again in Game 4.

It’s not easy to make this Miami team look vulnerable defensively, at least not when they are locked in. But the Heat either haven’t found that extra gear that they’ve relied on in years past or they have and the Spurs are too good for it to matter. Based on the way Miami reacted to San Antonio’s second straight annihilation of their defense on their home floor, constantly peering at the ground looking dejected and defeated, I’d say it’s the latter.

What’s even more impressive than what the Spurs did to Miami’s defense is how they made them look on the other end. Ironically, the star-studded Heat are not all that different than the anonymous Spurs when it comes to sharing the basketball and the credit. Like Tim Duncan, LeBron James has always been one of the more magnanimous teammates in basketball.

But the Spurs have completely disrupted Miami’s championship rhythm. San Antonio has executed defensively with the same devastating precision and imperative attention to detail that makes them a terror to guard on the other end of the floor. Anytime that LeBron or Dwyane Wade got into the paint in Game 4, they were met by the long, extended arms of Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, and San Antonio blew up some of Miami’s more complex offensive sets all game long by switching on all screens.

So, in what was a must-win game for the Heat if they were going to keep a three-peat within the realm of possibility, Miami looked more and more like Cleveland throughout the night, at least from LeBron’s perspective. Wade turned in the worst game of his Finals career, scoring just 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting, Chris Bosh was nowhere to be found after an initial burst in the opening minutes, Ray Allen only got two open looks courtesy of some lucky bounces and I’m pretty sure someone filed an actual missing persons report for Mario Chalmers.

The third quarter essentially summed up the game for the Heat. James shot 7-of-8 from the field and scored 19 of Miami’s 21 points during the third period and the Spurs still won the quarter 26-21. Given how little his teammates were contributing, LeBron was probably longing for the days when Larry Hughes and Boobie Gibson would hit a three every now and then, although that trio got throttled by the Spurs, too.

And, as usual, the Spurs were operating on the opposite end of the spectrum. Game 4 marked the second straight game where neither of San Antonio’s perennial powers were individually brilliant. Instead, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Duncan once again looked like Leonard’s overqualified sidekicks.

Leonard’s out of this world talent has only been surpassed by his uncanny acumen over these past two games. The defense he has played on James – moving his feet like Baryshnikov in sneakers and waving his arms around like the wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man – has been befitting of comparisons to Scottie Pippen, and his emergence as not just a finisher with the ball, but as another fluid cog in San Antonio’s rhythmic offense has kept things humming along. Despite two below average games to start this series, Leonard’s play in Miami may have been enough to make him the favorite for Finals MVP should the Spurs close this out.

It’s too simplistic to say that San Antonio has put on a clinic over the past two games. In fact, that may be belittling what they’ve done. Calling their offensive execution a clinic means they are setting some kind of example for others to follow. While that may be true about their selflessness, the kind of ball movement that the Spurs consistently display is not easily replicated.

We can talk about how the Spurs play the right way, but what’s more true is that they’ve found the right combination of players – a unique and perfect blend of light’s outs shooters, quick dribble penetrators, nimble and cunning defenders, Picasso-like passers and, most importantly, dedicated brothers – to fit their rare, adventurous and ravishing tiki-taka style of pounding the rock.

And now they are just a win away from being cemented as one of the best teams in NBA history.

A Little Help Here

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NBA: Finals-Miami Heat at San Antonio Spurs

SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio Spurs outscored the Miami Heat 16-3 in the final four minutes of Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals.

They did so by rediscovering the precision and the ball movement that had escaped them in the game’s previous three quarters, when they were turning the ball over like it had a bunch of splinters lodged in it. Manu Ginobili was threading the needle to Tim Duncan on pick-and-rolls, Danny Green broke out of his shooting slump with a trio of Tar Heel triples, and Tony Parker had a pair of big shots. After turning it over 21 times in the first 44 minutes of the game, San Antonio committed just one possession-ending error down the stretch, and it allowed their collective brilliance to shine through.

Also playing a role: The fact that LeBron James didn’t play during those final four minutes.

Thanks to a broken AC, everybody in the arena was forced to deal with an unrelenting, literal heat throughout the night. Interestingly enough, San Antonio’s cast of foreign players pleaded that the playing conditions weren’t that bad given their experience playing in inferior conditions overseas.

Nonetheless, for a player that has had documented issues with cramping, the combination of heat and humidity, which was so bad last night that the corridors of the AT&T Center glistened like a freshly mopped floor, caused muscle contractions in LeBron’s left thigh, rendering his left leg motionless late in the game.

And because it is LeBron, this has to be about more than a rare physical malfunction for the game’s greatest player. Forget the fact that LeBron dealt with a very similar issues in Game 4 of the 2012 Finals, only to come back into the game and nail the game-changing three, no, LeBron’s “cramps” last night were clearly a manufactured effort by James to bow out of a close game. If not, LeBron not checking back into the game, despite his own intentions to do so before his coach shot down his efforts, must mean that he’s not as tough as Jordan or Kobe.

We’ve come to expect some level of dismissible discourse when it comes to LeBron, but placing any of the blame for last night’s result on him robs us of the opportunity to examine the real issue with the way the Heat lost Game 1.

Miami’s meltdown without LeBron is understandable, but not totally excusable. We are not even two full years removed from people criticizing LeBron for having to get help from other stars to win a title, and now we’ve reached a point where the Heat couldn’t muster more than three points with LeBron off the floor down the stretch.

James is obviously the center of the Heat’s universe and things are going to change drastically if he’s not on the floor. But why does that mean that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh get a free pass for what was a punchless effort from them after LeBron exited the game? Would LeBron get the same treatment were it Wade that went out with an injury, leaving James with some added responsibility?

Why does Wade, whose campaign to be known as the third greatest shooting guard of all-time was recently kickstarted by Mark Jackson, get away with a two point fourth quarter, without a single point in the final four minutes? Wade and James have never been a perfect match offensively, and yet, when Wade was put in a position where the offense was relying on him, he failed to deliver anything at all. How does that go unnoticed while talking heads blab about LeBron not being superhuman enough to overcome an ailment that would sideline anybody?

Wade was an astounding minus-21 in the final nine minutes of the game, which is when LeBron’s issues starting flaring up. Bosh was a minus-15 in his six fourth quarter minutes. Individual plus/minus is a very hit or miss stat, but in this case it clearly illustrates just how poor an effort the Heat got from Wade and Bosh when they needed it the most.

It’s fitting that this whole thing played out against the Spurs, a team that has won two decisive games this post-season against the Blazers and Thunder with Tony Parker missing the entire second half. A popular narrative about this series may be about the battle of the big threes, but San Antonio is way more capable of operating sans one of their stars than Miami is when James has any kind of ailment, which is ironic given how Wade and Bosh are often portrayed as LeBron’s crutches by those that belittle his accomplishments.

People will use last night as an example of James’ imaginary issues in big moments, but I see what transpired in Game 1 as further proof of his greatness. That the team completely collapsed in his absence is nothing if not a statement on how integral he is, even on a team with two other superstars.

The main reason LeBron went to Miami was so that he could offset some of the unreasonable burden that he carried with him in Cleveland. Wade and Bosh were supposed to be the other pillars that prevented such a disaster from taking place if LeBron was off his game.

But last night they were buried in the rubble.

Heat Waves

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NBA: Finals-Miami Heat at San Antonio Spurs

SAN ANTONIO — With nine minutes left in Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals, San Antonio seemed to be facing a nightmare scenario. They were down seven after a Chris Bosh AND-1 three, Miami was hitting everything from deep, Danny Green had ironically gone cold at home as the temperature in the arena kept getting hotter and the Spurs had an unthinkable 20 total turnovers, which led directly to 28 Heat points.

Then LeBron’s Herculean body succumbed to debilitating cramps, which may be his only kryptonite as an athlete, and Miami suddenly looked lost without their leader. James asked out of the game after a couple of long jumpers around the seven minute mark, and upon returning after a few minutes on the bench, his thigh promptly cramped up again following a made lay-up. His second bout with those muscle contractions was devastating enough to lock up his entire left leg and keep him out of the game for good with four minutes to go.

Meanwhile, sensing blood in the water, the Spurs finally broke out of their turnover trance, Green got a couple of huge shots to go down to boost his confidence and in the blink of an eye, the Spurs had regained control of the game and taken what was a prime opportunity to steal a road game from the Heat.

During the final nine minutes of the game, the Spurs outscored the Heat 30-9, turning the ball over just twice while getting back to the selfless, efficient and effervescent style that has defined their team over the past few years. Getting Green on track was huge in mounting a comeback, even with James in peril, and after tailing him without error for the first three quarters of the game, Miami made fundamental mistakes that sprung San Antonio’s most lethal long-range shooter wide open for two big threes in the fourth.

And Green wasn’t done. A vintage Duncan outlet pass off of Dwyane Wade miss at the rim got Green out into transition, where he outran Rashard Lewis and threw down a dunk that capped off a personal 8-0 run for the slumping sharpshooter. That run turned the game from a 4-point Heat lead to a 4-point Spurs lead in the span of two minutes. James reentered the game after Green’s spurt, but he only lasted one possession. Following James’ permanent exit for the evening, the Spurs went on a 16-3 run fueled by the brilliance of their big three as well as their budding superstar.

First Ginobili found Green for another three, then he lofted a pass to Boris Diaw, who was being fronted by Chris Bosh, that I still can’t comprehend which resulted in an easy lay-up. Next Parker found Leonard for an open three before a Ginobili/Duncan pick-and-roll produced some tic-tac-toe passing from Manu to Timmy to Tony for the dagger corner three that appropriately came with Parker drilling the shot just a few feet away from where a bent over James watched from the bench.

What has to eat at the Heat even more than the fact that they lost their best player in the final four minutes of what was a two point game when he checked out for good is that they squandered a game that the Spurs were quite literally trying to give to them. You don’t see the Spurs play games this sloppy very often. The most recent time that San Antonio had a 22 turnover performance was in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks, and the result of that game was a 21-point loss on their home floor to an eight seed. On top of that, this was the first time the Heat have ever lost a game in which they forced 22 or more turnovers in the LeBron era, which is an even bigger sign that this is a game they should have had.

You have to credit Miami for most of San Antonio’s careless play; their chaotic defensive style forces opponents to make poor decisions and nobody works harder – or smarter – to prevent post entry passes. But once San Antonio started each possession with a clearer idea of their intentions, the ball started moving on a string and the offense developed that rhythmic flow that makes them so fun to watch.

Ironically, after his plague of turnovers in last year’s Finals, Ginobili was the Spur who looked most comfortable with the ball in Game 1. Manu spent the whole night dissecting the same Heat defense that made it seem like his career was over last season, slicing up Miami’s pick-and-roll coverages to the tune of 11 assists, with a couple of hockey helpers thrown in there as well. Ginobili started off the game with three three-pointers in the first quarter and slowly started to get others involved as the game when on, racking up four assists during the game’s deciding stretch.

Parker, whose health was still a question mark coming into this game, was just as good when getting others involved. Other than an occasional limp, Parker seemed to have his full array of sharp cuts and ravishing dashes to the cup available in this game. Miami’s speedy defense can contain him at times, but he was able to get a clean path towards the basket a few times in this game, and he made sure to get his teammates the ball when he saw the help come over. And somewhat surprisingly, Parker was also killer from the corners in this game, knocking down a pair of triples from there, which gives San Antonio the valuable ability to have Ginobili, who is a better three-point threat on the pull-up, handle the ball on the majority of high screen-and-rolls.

And Duncan was so key, as he always is, in making everything click. Duncan struggled a bit protecting the rim, but other than that, he was so solid in every facet of the game. He cleaned the boards, he dove to the basket and made tough finishes against pesky and often smaller defenders, and he did a good job of moving the ball when he was doubled in the paint. Duncan did struggle with turnovers, coughing it up a team high five times, but a lot of those could be solved with better set-ups from the perimeter.

Unlike the AT&T Center crowd, the Spurs weren’t always feeling hot in Game 1. They had patches of brilliance here and there followed by other stretches when the Heat put their stamp on the game with a unique blend of maniacal defense, a cornucopia of long-range options and LeBron’s individual greatness.

But when the game was on the line, San Antonio rode a heat wave to victory while the Miami Heat wilted away.

Remember The Alamo

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NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at San Antonio Spurs

The city of San Antonio owes most its national notoriety to a two-century old building that played a crucial role in the Texas Revolution. The Alamo, which now sits in the heart of the city near the River Walk, is one of America’s most historic tourist attractions and a fixture in most history textbooks. Impossibly outnumbered by the Mexican Army, 189 brave men from different and distinct backgrounds stood their ground at the Alamo before the strength of Santa Anna’s siege overwhelmed them way back in 1836.

Though the Alamo briefly stood as a symbol of victory for the Mexican Army, shortly after the memories of that battle would help turn the Texas Revolution into a legendary triumph for the Texian Army. Led by General Sam Houston, who would later be known as the “Father of Texas”, the Texian Army took down Santa Anna’s army with frightening precision at the Battle of San Jacinto as the troops famously shouted “Remember the Alamo!”

For a team that is as rooted in its city’s culture as any other organization in pro sports, it is apropos that the San Antonio Spurs have the opportunity to close the book on the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich era with such a similar final chapter.

Last year’s NBA Finals acted as a roadblock to liberation for Duncan and Pop. With just one more win, they would have been able to ride off into the sunset with a perfect record on the games biggest stage. But Ray Allen’s miracle shot in the final seconds of regulation in Game 6 was a cannonball that produced the first crack in the Spurs’ wall, and then LeBron, an army unto himself, was able to break it down with his heroic performance in Game 7.

For San Antonio to be as close as they were in Game 7 was another sign of their incredible resilience and courage, but it wasn’t enough to derail Miami’s quest to control the NBA.

But now the Spurs have fought their way back, ready to exact revenge for their downfalls in 2013. Duncan and Manu Ginobili have repelled Father Time for yet another year, Tony Parker turned in another elite season, Danny Green has returned to avenge his letdown performances in Games 6 and 7, Kawhi Leonard has made strides on both ends of the floor as his burden has increased and the rest of San Antonio’s supporting cast has never been better.

Rather than wilting in shame of their failure or succumbing to age and eroding skills, the Spurs have returned stronger after last year’s Finals, due in large part to the incomparable leadership of Popovich. Popovich, an Air Force Academy graduate, has helped build the most mentally tough battalion in all of sports, unrelenting in their execution and in their belief in each other. That faith has been vital in San Antonio’s return to the Finals, as they’ve met each and every obstacle thrown in their way – Serge Ibaka’s return, Tony Parker’s injury in Game 6 of the conference finals, etc. – without batting an eyelash.

Now the Spurs assume their positions in front of the Alamo City walls yet again, with LeBron and his troops looking to charge right in.

The Alamo was viewed as “The Last Stand” for the Texian Army, but even after their crushing defeat, they were able to muster the moxie necessary to seek out and defeat the Mexican Army in the decisive Battle of San Jacinto.

How fitting would it be for the Spurs, a team whose last stand has been proclaimed and forecasted for the better part of this decade, to rally together for one more battle after what looked to be a true deathblow last season? How perfect would it be for this series to be Duncan’s true last stand, one that he emerges from victorious?

And if Popovich and Duncan can finally obtain that fleeting freedom that allows them to walk away from the game after raising their flag on the NBA’s mast for the fifth and final time, the description of their swansong may someday read like this:

“Though the 2013 Finals briefly stood as a symbol of victory for the Heat, shortly after the memories of that battle would help turn the 2014 Finals into a legendary triumph for the Spurs. Led by Coach Gregg Popovich, who would later be known as the “Pop of San Antonio”, the Spurs took down LeBron’s army with frightening precision at the Battle of San Antonio as the players famously shouted “Remember those yellow ropes!”

The Problematic Pacers

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NBA: Playoffs-Indiana Pacers at Miami Heat

I’m not sure that Game 6 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals could have been more predictable.

A rousing Miami Heat blowout wasn’t expected because of anything that happened in Game 5, it was just that, after these past few months, this was exactly how everyone envisioned the Indiana Pacers’ season coming to an end. Following all of the drama and the stretches of incompetence, watching Indiana helplessly standby as LeBron James ripped them to shreds, their offense wilting under Miami’s pressure, seemed like a fitting end to a season that had been progressively building towards a massive letdown.

For a team that had already shown signs of mental weakness, being defeated in that fashion has to be indefinitely crippling.

The Pacers talked all season about the importance of having homecourt advantage for a Game 7 and they spent all season saying that they were built to take down the Heat. They had to survive a couple of scares just to get to this point, being taken to seven games by the paltry Atlanta Hawks in the opening round and losing Game 1 against the Wizards in Round 2, but they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and they had the homecourt advantage that they desperately wanted. After everything they went through on and off the court, they ended up right where everyone expected them to be as June approached.

But on Friday night, the Pacers were once again met with the devastating truth that has haunted them over the past few years: The Miami Heat are a lot better than them.

Indiana was an awesome team for most of this season. As hard as their style can be on the eyes, they deserve appreciation for their brilliant defensive work. Credit for the Pacers’ success could be spread amongst all of their starters and to their head coach. Armed with a smart scheme that took advantage of the individual defensive abilities of Roy Hibbert, Indiana had the best defense in the league, which is something to be proud of even with their offensive ineptitude.

In the Eastern Conference, which is littered with a number of teams that struggle mightily offensively, that defense was enough to make them dominant on most nights, and they even proved to be a problem for Miami during the regular season. Thus, even with minimal adjustments to their roster outside of the additions of Luis Scola and C.J. Watson, the Pacers gained confidence regarding their eventual post-season matchup with the Heat.

And yet, this series wasn’t all that competitive. Looking back, perhaps that is not all that surprising. In 2012, the Pacers put up a tough fight, but Miami was also missing Chris Bosh for most of that series, and last year it was Dwyane Wade that was not totally healthy when Indiana took the defending champions to seven games. But still, with Miami looking like they took a small step back this season, there seemed to be hope for Indiana in this series.

Instead, Indiana ran into the team that is perfectly constructed to belittle their biggest strength, a team designed to destruct the rigid defense that acts as their sole lifeline. As odd as it would seem having a flawed team like the Pacers in the NBA Finals, if they were playing the Thunder in the Eastern Conference Finals, they may very well have punched themselves a ticket to the final round. But Miami is just so ruthlessly efficient offensively that not even the league’s most dominant defense can slow them down, and with Wade and James both at peak form, Indiana’s clunky offense was no match for the Heat.

Some will say that the Pacers were built for a different era when smallball and pushing the pace was less popular, but I think this team could have reached the Finals had they come along not even five or six years ago, before Miami’s supreme trio came together. Had these Pacers been running into the Kevin Garnett-era Celtics in the Conference Finals over the past few years, a team that had similar struggles offensively and an equally great defense, Indiana’s edge in individual talent may have earned them a trip to the Finals – although I shudder to think what Kevin Garnett would do to Hibbert’s psyche.

But Indiana had no such luck. For three years running, their final game of the season has come against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. It’s somewhat sobering, I suppose, that this group of guys, as flawed as they were, could come together to create a historically good defense, only to have LeBron crack the code time after time.

And their Game 6 loss on Friday night looked much worse than their two previous eliminations at the hands of the Heat. Whereas their last two losses created hope that they may be able to take down Miami in the future, this loss felt like this group had reached the end of their journey, and that there was no future for any Eastern Conference team so long as LeBron is around.

Lance Stephenson totally lost control after a series full of immature antics, leading Paul George to say “I don’t know” when asked about bringing him back next season. George Hill fell apart, struggling to even bring the ball up the floor at times. Roy Hibbert completed one of the most unbelievable individual collapses of all-time, failing to take control in a matchup he had previously owned for reasons that have to rooted with something off the court. And George, the player that looked like a budding superstar this time last year and the guy who was garnering legitimate praise as a top five player at the beginning of the season, had flashes of excellence mixed with occasional on-court sabbaticals, a sign that he is not yet on the level of his all-world peers.

Everyone in Indiana’s lockerroom bought into the idea that this was their best shot at dethroning the Heat, but somewhere along the line, things fell apart and their dreams were derailed. Now the Pacers enter the off-season with more questions than answers.

And even if they find those answers, given their luck, LeBron will probably switch up the equation.

Love Lost

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Miami Heat

The prominent theory when it comes to building a contender in a small market is that the team needs to bottom out and nab a superstar in the lottery in order to start down the path towards success. Coastal cities will inevitably attract star power as well as aging veterans looking to string out their careers with the added bonus of enjoyable scenery, so the best shot for the little guy is to build from within.

The San Antonio Spurs are the model franchise in this respect. They landed the number one overall pick back in 1997 and, despite some flirting with the Magic in 2000, Tim Duncan has been in San Antonio for 16 years. Even as Duncan had his team at the top of the standings each year, the Spurs were able to mine talent from unfamiliar territories to surround him with and they had the best coach in basketball to put everything together.

But as much as we want to admire San Antonio for being able to escape the confines of its market, doing so creates an impossibly high standard for every other small market franchise in the league. Over the last decade or so, the only other franchise that has been able to replicate San Antonio’s success was Oklahoma City, and not surprisingly they did so by hiring a young executive that grew up in the Spurs organization.

Another common thread between Oklahoma City and San Antonio that makes them more outliers than the standard is that the superstars that they built around were incredibly humble and devoted individuals; a different breed in today’s hyper, egotistical world of professional sports. Duncan almost went to Disneyworld back in 2000, but since then he’s never wavered in his loyalty to San Antonio, even taking massive paycuts in order to give his general manager financial flexibility. Durant is yet to enter his prime, but everything he’s said seems to indicate that he loves the quaint mid-western town that he’s in.

Those kinds of superstars are rare, and what’s even rarer is that the same front office that lucks into the top pick necessary to draft a Duncan or Durant is also capable of building a title contender around them. More often than not, the draw of being able to play with a star isn’t enough to offset the financial or lifestyle sacrifices that such a move would necessitate.

Thus, there is increased pressure on the executives to build through the draft. Oklahoma City was far better off than the Spurs since they landed the 4th overall pick in 2008 and the 3rd overall pick in 2009, which allowed them to take Russell Westbrook and James Harden, whereas the Spurs have yet to have a lottery pick of their own since they got Duncan. But because the Spurs are able to extract efficient production from just about anybody and because they’ve had so much success with foreign prospects, they also represent an uncommon string of effective personnel decisions that few teams can ever replicate.

This reliance on outstanding draft success as a substitute for big free agent signings has led to a severe decrease in championship windows for small market teams that draft players that would normally be considered capable of leading a team on multiple deep playoff runs.

LeBron James was able to get the Cavs to the Finals just once during his seven years there and he’s one of the 10 best players of all-time. But Cleveland never could put a roster together that complemented him as well as Miami’s roster, even without Dwyane Wade, does. Ditto for Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who carried the Magic to a Finals appearance before a series of dumbfounding decisions by Otis Smith had Dwight fleeing for Los Angeles and, eventually, Houston.

The latest causality is Minnesota Timberwolves, who appear to be on the verge of having to trade their star power forward for the second time in seven years. Kevin Love’s “people” have reportedly told the team that he will walk away from the franchise next off-season when he’s able to opt out of his current contract, which means the T’Wolves would be smart to start listening to trade offers so they can get something in return rather than seeing Love walk away for nothing.

It’s saddening, to say the least, that more small market teams that land superstars in the lottery wind up losing them rather than holding onto them for the majority of their career. It’s not about money; Bird Rights have been implemented for the specific purpose of giving small market teams the advantage when re-signing players by giving them an extra year to offer. And in the social media age, it’s not about endorsements or building a brand; LeBron was Nike’s co-star alongside Kobe from the day he entered the league, Howard was Adidas’ biggest endorser in Orlando and Love is already on your TV selling you Taco Bell.

rubiolove1
Rubio’s selfless, endearing style may not be enough to keep Love in Minnesota.

More often than not, these divorces are related to poor supporting casts, and big cities act as a safehaven since, even if the front office is incompetent, the city and the opportunity to play with stars can sell itself to other big-time players. In the case of Minnesota, they have multiple opportunities to surround love with a strong supporting cast. After he got the best of Memphis with a draft night trade that landed Minny Love’s draft rights in exchange for O.J. Mayo back in 2008, David Kahn swung and missed in the draft three years in a row, including his infamous mishandling of his four first round picks in 2009.

Kahn’s decision to take Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn back-to-back with the 5th and 6th overall picks in 2009 will haunt the franchise forever. Rubio is a good player but his brilliant aesthetics and overall effectiveness are neutered by his never-ending search for a jumpshot, and Flynn was a total flop that didn’t last three full seasons in the league. To make matters worse, with the pick right after Flynn, the Golden State Warriors landed themselves a franchise changing talent in Stephen Curry, leading to a tremendous what-if regarding the potential trio of Rubio, Curry and Love.

Things didn’t get much better from there. Armed with the 4th overall pick in 2010 and the 2nd overall pick in 2011, Kahn drafted two players that are no longer on the roster, one of which played for the league minimum this season: Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams. Minnesota’s streak of misses continued even after Kahn was gone, as Flip Saunders’ first move as team president was drafting Trey Burke and trading him for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. While Dieng had a strong run to close the season, Muhammad, the higher selection of the two, seems to be a long way from lottery-like production.

Even with a strong coach like Rick Adelman, the Timberwolves struggled to survive in the rugged Western Conference. Granted, they dealt with some severely unfair injury issues over the past two seasons, but given the state of their roster relative to the rest of the conference, it’s safe to assume that a playoff berth would have been the extent of their accomplishments. And as much as you want a player like Love to stay in Minnesota and keep the franchise relevant as he enters into his prime as one of the brightest stars in the league, can you really blame him for pursuing a shot at success?

It will be interesting to see if the league deems this a problem big enough to address when the new CBA is up for negotiations, if they decide it is a problem at all. At the end of the day, the result of these superstar fallouts it getting ultra-talented players to places that maximize their earning potential. And even as the Timberwolves would be set back for five or six years as they try to hit the lottery again in the draft, a team like Milwaukee will experience a brief upswing up until Andrew Wiggins decides to bolt for the beaches. It’s a cyclical process.

But perhaps the league is right not to address the increased number of fleeting small market stars since the underlying and most prominent issue is inept front offices and coaching staffs. Had Kahn drafted like Sam Presti and had Danny Ferry and Mike Brown crafted a culture like the one they experienced during their time in San Antonio, perhaps Love and LeBron are still pumping money into those small market economies.

Then again, maybe the Spurs and Thunder have just gotten our hopes up. Their success inspires other small market franchises to follow their blueprint, but in reality, they are deviations from the norm whose commendable coups still pale in comparison to those of the Lakers and Celtics and whose admirable triumphs are far less likely to sustain past a generation than a franchise whose arena is within a few miles of beaches or Broadway.

Who’s To Blame?

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Orlando Magic vs. Indiana Pacers

If the reports are true, Stan Van Gundy will be the next head coach of the Detroit Pistons. And their next president of basketball operations, too.

Over the past few years, there seems to have been an influx in the amount of head coaching candidates that want a tighter grip on personnel decisions to go along with their usual lockerroom leadership duties. It’s understandable, to an extent, since a disconnect between a front office executive and a head coach can have disastrous results. Coaches know what players fit their system the best and without a doubt they already have an evident amount of say on personnel decisions when it comes to deciding if that player suits their style or if they’ll fit into the culture of the lockerroom.

But front office guys often have their own points of view, and even their own agendas. A GM on the hotseat can make hasty decisions that saddle a coach with deadweight players and an undesirable capsheet, thus leading to the eventual ousting of the coach, too. It’s a situation that Van Gundy wanted to avoid when he started fielding job offers earlier this month, likely because his downfall in Orlando unfolded in a similar manner.

Trying desperately to build a winning team around Dwight Howard before he had a chance to leave in free agency led then Magic general manager Otis Smith to trade for Gilbert Arenas, who hasn’t had a relevant basketball moment since, and to sign Glen Davis and Jason Richardson to sizable mid-level deals. When it came time for Howard to make his decision, after changing his mind a few dozen times, he recognized the situation around him was less than desirable, and Van Gundy and Smith got the boot soon after.

I get why Van Gundy, or any other high profile coach, would want to protect themselves from that kind of a situation. But what I find interesting is that, rather than just trying to find a good general manager to pair themselves with, these coaching candidates have gone a step further, demanding full control and final say on all basketball operations while the GM handles the day-to-day responsibilities. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly egregious; it’s not like Scotty Brooks is the one asking for control over personnel decisions. But I’m not quite sure what got us to this point. Where along the road did the best coaches in the league want to usurp all of the basketball-related power within their organizations?

The easy answer is that it began with Phil Jackson during his time with the Lakers. I know there are some more historic examples, but ever since front offices have expanded to house several executives, including one person specifically chosen to have final say on the shaping of the roster, Jackson is the best example of a coach that didn’t want anything to be above his pay grade.

There were three pretty obvious reasons why Phil wanted to extend his jurisdiction past the sidelines: 1) He had already six titles in Chicago under an overbearing owner, 2) His triangle offense was as unique as any system in the league and required specific kinds of players to make things click, and 3) He was dating the daughter of legendary Laker owner Jerry Buss, which I’m sure made him feel like a part owner in some respects. Dr. Buss bit the bullet and ceded control to Jackson during his second tenure with the team, but Jimmy Buss wouldn’t give Jackson the power he wanted when the team reached out to him about returning for a third time and instead opted for Mike D’Antoni.

Jackson’s situation with the Lakers was a unique one because of how successful was and because he had a serious romantic relationship with one of the owners, so perhaps the best example of this distorted hierarchy involves another coach that finds himself on the Mount Rushmore of NBA coaches: Gregg Popovich.

0507-san-antonio-spurs-608
Spurs GM R.C. Buford hands Gregg Popovich his latest Coach of the Year Award.

While Pop’s schematics are top notch, his greatest skill as a coach has been cultivating a culture in the lockerroom that manifests itself on the floor. Being that selflessness and sacrifice are two major points of emphasis for the Air Force graduate, letting him decide what kind of players were brought into the organization seems incredibly logical, especially because he’s demonstrated the ability to extract efficient production out of guys that may not be all that talented. R.C. Buford is one of the best general managers in the league, but it’s clear that Popovich’s presence has always been a bit of an asterisk when it came to evaluating his performance. Until this year, that is, when Buford finally earned the Executive of the Year Award, fittingly in the same year that Pop took home his third Coach of the Year Award.

Jackson and Popovich are two of the best coaches ever and for their opinions to carry more weight with their respective organizations, organizations that they won multiple championships with, makes a lot of sense. The question is whether or not that has set the table for other high profile, yet not remotely as successful, coaches to make expanded front office roles a requirement to hire them.

We saw it this summer with Doc Rivers, who was only willing to leave the Celtics if he was given a prominent front office position, and he’s now the vice president of basketball operations as well as the Clippers’ head coach. Rivers had built himself quite a culture in Boston, but I don’t think he’s got any proprietary schematics or a specific blueprint for his kind of player that would make expanded control a necessity.

The early returns on his front office career are less than stellar. His first move in LA was trading away budding superstar Eric Bledsoe in exchange for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. Though Redick has been stellar for Doc’s offense when he’s been healthy, Dudley hasn’t been a key contributor for a good while now, and despite all of the buzz the moves got when they went down, the Clippers’ mid-season acquisitions — Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis and Danny Granger — haven’t been all that impactful.

Van Gundy is the latest head coach to make power a priority during his job search. What’s maddening about Van Gundy’s itinerary is that it likely prevented what would have been the best possible basketball marriage on the market. Van Gundy’s talks with the Golden State Warriors reportedly broke down because the team wasn’t willing to let him preside over current General Manager Bob Myers, who has done a fine job assembling a roster that could have won 55-60 games under Van Gundy’s guidance.

It makes sense that Van Gundy would make more control a stipulation during his conversations since the Pistons were willing to go all out and over him the top basketball related position, but for it to be a deal breaker for Van Gundy, so much so that he passed up an opportunity to coach a team that has all of the ingredients that his Magic teams had when he took them to the Finals in 2009 with even more subsidiary talent (and Steph freaking Curry) just so that he’d have more say so in Detroit, which is by far a tougher situation to succeed in, is puzzling.

Aside from Pop, Van Gundy and Rivers are two of the top five coaches in basketball along with Tom Thibodeau, Rick Carlisle and Erick Spoelstra, so for them to feel entitled to a salient voice on all important decisions is reasonable. But have we really reached a point where all established coaches are going to demand that they get to wear both hats – the one that gives them the power to command what happens on the floor and the one that lets them decide which players he can put on that floor – even though it’s not a universal fit?

It’s not quite letting the inmates run the asylum, but not all guards are cracked up to be wardens, either.

Team USA’s Scrimmage Against The Dominican Republic

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